Duke CTSI and NFL partnership helps translate athlete safety research to real-world applications

Published by the Center for Leading Innovation and Collaboration (CLIC).

July 31, 2018

In an effort to stimulate innovation for the next generation of protective sports equipment, the NFL, in partnership with Duke University’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute (Duke CTSI) and Football Research, Inc. (FRI), has contributed more than $1.3 million to date to transform helmet safety concepts to actual products.  

The HeadHealthTECH Challenges program attracts grant proposals from institutions, individuals and corporations interested in advancing athlete safety. The program, which just announced the winners of its fourth challenge, is structured to inspire developments in engineering, biomechanics, advanced sensors and material science, as well as encourage connections with mentors and venture capitalists. Since its inception in September 2016, the TECH Challenges have awarded grants to support product development for 11 applications, ranging from helmet technology enhancements to improvements to surfaces that players come in contact with, like turf.

The TECH Challenges are operated and managed by Duke CTSI, an institution funded through NCATS’ Clinical and Translational Science Awards (CTSA) Program, which supports a national network of medical research organizations working together to get medical advancements to the public more quickly.

Duke CTSI’s 15-year history rooted in effective research project management allows them to provide constructive and actionable feedback for TECH Challenge applicants.

“What makes this program so successful is the educational element that Duke CTSI brings,” said Jennifer Langton, VP of Health and Safety for the NFL. “Their team evaluates every application and asks things like, ‘What’s missing from this proposal?’ or ‘What resources would they need to make this plausible?’ Without that level of expertise and guidance, many of these concepts would remain just that – a concept.”

One of the awarded grants went to protective headgear company, 2nd Skull, who competed against 84 other proposals in the second HeadHealthTECH Challenge. The Pittsburgh, PA-based startup received $100,000 to both evaluate the effectiveness of the 2nd Skull cap in reducing impact forces, and develop a second-generation version.

“Duke CTSI helped us structure effective biokinetic testing and analyze the associated data, ultimately allowing us to prove how well the cap actually worked,” said Vaughan Blaxter, president and CEO of 2nd Skull. “We’re now in the final stages of getting our new and improved prototype field tested by the NFL – something that may not have been possible without the doors the TECH Challenges opened for us.”

Chris Yakacki, president, CEO and CTO of Impressio, Inc., echoes Blaxter’s sentiments. For Impressio, who received funding from Challenge III to support the development and testing of its ultra-dissipative padding, the benefits of the program extend far beyond money.

“When you’re trying to start a business, funding is obviously important. But the knowledge we received from Duke, along with the connections we made through the NFL and FRI, is really invaluable,” said Yakacki.

Dr. Barry Myers, director of innovation at Duke CTSI and a consultant for the NFL Players Association since 2009, has been working on brain injury research his entire scientific career. While he recognizes the importance of science and innovation in moving this research forward, he also contributes much of the program’s success to the NFL’s dedication to improving safety.

“This partnership is a wonderful combination of scientific background, translational expertise and business acumen,” said Myers. “While our role as research mentors and experts is key, it’s also important to note the critical role that business plays in translation – without the NFL’s commitment, none of this would be possible.”

The TECH Challenge series is a key component of the NFL’s Play Smart. Play Safe. Engineering Roadmap—a $60 million comprehensive plan, managed by FRI, to create incentives to develop improved helmets and protective equipment in the next two to four years. HeadHealthTECH Challenge VI is currently accepting proposals until September 13, 2018. To learn more about the program and previous winners, visit the website.

Please note that Duke-affiliated researchers are not eligible to apply for this opportunity. Please share with your non-Duke colleagues and peers.